1. How did you end up in Mexico City? Can you talk about your trajectory as an academic?
The day after I defended my dissertation at the University of Kentucky, I moved to Mexico City to volunteer at Asilegal (a non-profit that works with vulnerable groups such as women, indigenous people, and the poor to help advocate for their legal rights) and to work as a freelance writer.
Writing my dissertation was a long, lonely process. I wrote about the representation of violence against women in Juárez, Mexico in film, literature and photography, and after three years of writing, I wanted to be reimmersed in the world of the living. I wanted to understand violence against women from a different point of view, to work with and speak with those affected by violence. I volunteered with Asilegal for four months, and, although I learned a lot during that time, I also became aware that my bosses were stealing money from the NGO. It was a heartbreaking time.
In terms of my trajectory as an academic, I got my Ph.D. purely out of a love for literature. I always wanted to be a writer, but I was afraid to admit it because I was afraid of failure.
2. How do you navigate being a creative writer in academia? What kind of tension do you feel between those worlds, and how do they influence each other?
There is a definite tension between the two worlds. The problem for me, the reason I have moved towards creative writing and journalism, is that in academia, literary theory has become a sacred cow. Everything has to be written and discussed in light of theory, mostly the heavyweights like Foucault, Agamben, Benjamin, etc. While theory can be useful for analyzing some subjects, mostly it is abused, and it makes for boring, tedious writing.
What I realized in the process of getting my Ph.D. was 1) As far as I can tell, almost nobody reads academic writing by choice 2) I don’t even enjoy reading my own academic writing. So after finishing graduate school I tried to remedy this by writing articles about women’s rights and human rights for Women’s Media Center and other NGOs. I loved the fact that a whole community of people I didn’t know read, commented on and acted out based on things I had written. This year I have discovered a happy balance where my creative writing feeds off my academic research.
3. Your Vela story, “Disappearances Have To Disappear,” struggles with the ethics of representation. How do you deal with that in your own work? How do you decide what to put in and leave out, and what kinds of questions do you take into consideration when writing about violence and Juárez?
I struggle with the issue of ethics a lot in my own work because I am very aware of my status as an outsider. I am not from the Juárez nor have I lived there, and yet I am drawn to read about, study and write about the area. I came to study Juárez through literature and film, and got to know the place and its people and landscapes through words and images. When I went there for the first time in 2010, it was a secret trip, because my university would not give me approval to conduct research in what was then considered the most dangerous city in the world.
When I write about the city I try to focus on individual stories, to weave them together in a way that tells about daily life. I feel like the humanity of the city and its people often gets lost in the news about violence.
4. Can you share a moment of utter writing despair, and one breakthrough moment?
There have been many moments of despair, years of despair even, because I never felt like a writer. However, I think all of those internal struggles gave me the grit to keep going and also made me realize that I have to love writing as a process. The moment I want someone else’s approval or recognition is when I give someone else control over my happiness.
One specific period [of despair] was when I moved back home to rural Arkansas to live with my parents and to write. Where I grew up in the Ozark Mountains is an extremely rural area, and I thought it would be the perfect place to focus on writing. I liked to imagine that I was a writer who would flourish alone in the woods. However, I ended up feeling extremely isolated living in a place where the only living thing I saw on a daily basis was my parent’s mean cat, Katia (my parents lived during the week in Little Rock, so I didn’t see them that often). I realized that given my extremely social nature, moving to rural Arkansas was not actually a good writing situation for me. Rather than writing, I spent a lot of my days crying.
It was after that period in Arkansas that I decide to move to Mexico City. I absolutely ate up the frenetic energy of the city, and all of that movement and interaction flowed out of me and into my writing. I realized that I was not the writer I always read about, the one who lived in some secluded area and wrote in a quiet room. I felt like I had internalized one particular idea of a writer, and had tried to make myself be that person.
However, in Mexico City, my breakthrough was to be myself, to love graffiti, jugglers, street vendors, and fried pigskin, to wander the city and take in sights, sounds and images until I was bursting at the seams.
5. Who have been major influences for you as a writer? What are you reading right now?
As a child, I loved Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue. In Pierre, the main character, a spoiled little boy, is threatened by a lion to behave or else get eaten. In Maurice’s drawing, tiny Pierre stands in front of the lion and the line goes, “I don’t care, said Pierre.” I loved that as a child and used to run around telling my parents or anyone I didn’t want to listen to, “I don’t care, said Pierre.”
Even now, as an adult, I sometimes still say it. Maurice was a good friend of my Mom’s so it is hard for me to separate his writing from stories of him. About a year before he died, I visited him in Connecticut, in the wealthy neighborhood where he lived. We sat down to lunch, and he proceeded to tell a story about a recent walk in the park. He said, “The other day I went out for a walk in the park in my neighborhood. I was walking when suddenly this wealthy lady rode up on her horse and said, ‘aren’t you that famous writer. Can I stop by your house and get you to autograph a book for my daughter?’ And I shouted ‘I’m going to kill you.’”
He was a curmudgeon but goddamned if it wasn’t beautiful to hear the truth, to laugh at this tiny writer of “children’s books” (he hated being described as a children’s writer) absolutely terrorizing all those who might try to make him be someone he wasn’t. He was a tyrant, but a truthful one. Women simply aren’t allowed to behave like that, which is why I aspire to be like him.
In college, I had poet Nikky Finney as a professor, and taking her class on the Harlem Renaissance convinced me that I was a writer. In 2011, when Finney won the National Book Award in Poetry, her spoken word acceptance speech brought me to tears. C.E. Morgan’s All the Living is one of the most quietly powerful books I have ever read. She and I went to Berea College at the same time, and I always remember her for her Pepsi addiction. I love Junot Díaz for his irreverence and sense of humor (This is How You Lose Her made me laugh until I cried) and the way he pulls off having a dirty fucking mouth even in academic settings (In 2010 I heard him give a lecture at Indiana University). If I could be reincarnated as any writer, it would probably be Peter Hessler, whose travel narratives about China (Oracle Bones, River Town) changed the way I thought about travel writing. Hessler showed me that it was possible to tell stories about change and about an entire country by following individuals over a period of years. Given my love of testimony and interviews, this was an important revelation in terms of my own writing.
I just finished reading Wild and Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed. She captures so well the raw, human beauty that can be found in making a mess of everything.
6. How does photography influence your writing?
Photography entered my life in a serendipitous way. I had never considered myself a photographer, had never owned a real camera. However, when I was working on my dissertation, a writer I interviewed said, “Hey, you should meet Julián Cardona, a photographer from Juárez.” This was in 2009, and, at that time, I didn’t think photography had anything to do with my project. However, meeting Julián ended up changing the course of my research and, in many ways, my life.
After meeting Julián, I began to interview other photographers about their work on Juárez. When I moved to Mexico City in 2011, I wandered the city with my camera and spent weekends at markets like La Lagunilla and El Chopo, sometimes with other photographers.
On a whim, I sent a photo I took at La Lagunilla with my Iphone to National Geographic. In 2012, almost a year after submitting the photo, I got an email from Julián titled, “Your photo in National Geographic.” He had been reading the magazine and spotted my photo. Although the editors of NG had sent me an email stating that the might publish my photo, I never really believed it.
Photography has influenced my writing in that I have become even more visual and detail oriented. I am a collector of strange images, and I carry them around with me until they come together and form stories. I like to make connections between images, places, and events that seem to have nothing in common.
Alice is currently at work on a short film project about Juárez photographers Julián Cardona and Jaime Bailléres.
In her recent essay for Vela, she writes, “I wanted to pull the flesh from the bone, to strip away the images or move beyond them and strike at something hard and real. I wanted to find the stories behind the images, to meet the photographers who, for decades, had lived and worked in the city whose images they captured.”
Read “Disappearances Have To Disappear.”